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My Favorite Rembrandt Painting

On one of my rare visits to the Cleveland Museum of Art as a teen, I bought a postcard of what became one of my favorites in their collection. Along with the van Goghs, the gigantic waterlilies by Monet and the suits of armor in the Medieval Hall, this Rembrandt painting is a ‘must-see’ whenever I am lucky enough to go there.
Obviously, the first thing to catch my eye is how attractive the guy is. I’ve always had a penchant for bearded men and this man certainly wears it well. He’s dressed nicely, but without the 17th Century bling and his hat is more practical than most, having a wide brim to keep off rain and snow and lacking feathers and other decorations. He is wearing warm looking clothes, so it must have been winter when the painting was started. His red shirt adds a splash of color, but not distractingly so, as it blends in with the warm tones of the rest of the painting. Some people might tire of all the browns in Rembrandt’s work, considering it a dull color. But it’s actually a comforting color; that of a puppy’s eyes, a beautiful horse, chocolate and a soothing cup of tea.
The young man’s expression is pensive, but not sad, as if he would look up and smile if one called his name. The lighting has almost a spotlight effect, highlighting his right shoulder and his face, which is partially shaded by the brim of his hat. But the shading is a natural occurrence and doesn’t make him appear shifty or evasive as it might in a harder edged gangster film poster. Instead, the lighting especially outlines his fine profile, accentuating his handsomeness.
The identity of the sitter is unknown and have varied over the years. At one point it was thought to be a portrait of the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, but while the shape of the head is similar, an internet search shows Spinoza is nearly always portrayed as clean shaven and with longer hair, though a single illustration has him sporting a mustache. Most often, this picture is considered one of a student, perhaps an Ashkenazim Jew. Since Amsterdam at the time had a large and thriving Jewish population and immigrants of many nations.
Could this be a favorite son of an esteemed family? Or a wedding or engagement gift or a celebration of graduation or some other accomplishment? Guessing at the story behind a work of art is part of the fun of studying it. Tracy Chevalier and Susan Vreeland have made careers writing about the possibilities. (VL reviewed the latter’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, about Renoir’s painting)
In preparation for this post and seeking the date this painting was done, which was between 1655-1660, I was jolted when I saw that recently, experts had decided it was no longer considered to have been painted by Rembrandt himself, but by someone studying in his studio. Dana E. Cowan said in 2012 “The broad and thinly painted cloak and hat suggests the painting is likely a workshop product and while it does display Rembrandt’s characteristic in a sitter’s introspection, the figure’s thoughtfulness remains comparatively superficial.”
Harrumph! So the guy doesn’t look sad enough? I feel annoyed and a bit let down, yet strangely resistant to the changed provenance. Maybe I’ll just ignore this new designation? After all, it doesn’t really change anything about my appreciation of it, the qualities all remain. And the title of this piece would’ve been so much more clunky had I said “my favorite painting by Rembrandt or maybe a student of his.” In any case, I’ll remain faithful to my Dutch cutie and continue to visit him whenever I go to the museum.
other posts connected to this subject
VL reviewed a book where Rembrandt’s art led to an author’s philosophy in How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful Imperfect Self .
Hilary reviewed an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London which touches on some of these same issues in Imagined Lives .
Jackie will never be the artist Rembrandt was, but does some decent wildlife paintings, which can be seen here .

"The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say."
Anaïs Nin

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